Many of you are aware of the difficulty involved in my journey out of religion and the pulpit. My new life has brought freedom but great distress as well. In the last two years and 11 months, the entire fabric of my universe has changed! Trying to find my place and how I fit in has been one of the biggest stressors for me and my family.
After coming out, I went to work as the PR Director for American Atheists. I enjoyed not only a great work atmosphere, but I felt like I was part of a family. Yet even at AA I didn’t feel that I’d found my niche. So I moved on to Florida and then to Harvard. Each move taught me something about myself but, at the same time, it wasn’t the right thing for me. In many ways, I feel like a teenager trying to figure out what to do with my life.
Growing up, I KNEW that I was supposed to be a minister. I didn’t have to think about or take any ‘exploring careers’ assessment. God had shown me, at 6 years old, that my purpose in life was as a minister. Even though it took years for me to work out the ‘women in ministry’ question, I still knew that ministry was my life. That’s all I’d ever wanted and I loved every minute of it! (Well, not the church board meetings. Nobody loves board meetings!) So it’s easy to see the trauma that leaving has caused me personally.
Over this past year, I’ve had a lot of time to think about things. I spent months wallowing in the aftermath of my screw-up until I found the strength to seek counseling. Through these months of therapy, I’ve discovered so many things about myself but one that really opened my eyes: I haven’t ever lived my life for ME.
Sacrificing my own self for the sake of others has been my M.O. from childhood. While dedication, compassion, and service to others is noble, it can also be damaging when taken to extremes. Under the guise of ‘pleasing god and fulfilling my calling’, I allowed my unique self to fade away as I became the ‘hands and feet of Christ’.
One of the big themes that my therapist has focused on (over and over again) is this: “What do you enjoy?” “How do you care for yourself?” “What do you do to relax?” My answers… I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. At first, I dreaded our weekly conversations. I knew that he would ask those same questions and that my answers would be the same. No matter how hard I worked to discover what was inside me, I couldn’t seem to find it. Looking into my inner self, all I saw was a minister staring back at me. Saying that I’m stuck would be an accurate description of my life after faith.
Maybe you’ve felt or are feeling the same way. Being a deacon, Sunday School teacher, working with the youth, singing in the choir, or just sitting in a pew defined your life and now, without that, life is in a scary state of uncertainty. As a Christian, these feelings occurred but the solution was easy– just pray and God will tell me what to do. Even though I know that God isn’t there, the belief that some cosmic superhero was listening and could (if I prayed just right) solve my problems brought a sense of comfort and security. But all that is gone and what happens in my life is up to me. Deep down I have to admit that this scares me.
A lot of people don’t want to talk about these issues. In some ways, the unspoken attitude is, “If you’re feeling this way then maybe you’re not a real atheist.” We’re afraid of saying anything because of what others may say to us or about us. Honestly, I think this indicates that while we have walked away from our faith, religion (i.e. religious attitudes) still control our lives.
Maybe we still feel threatened by anything that doesn’t fit our mental picture of an atheist. Maybe we struggle with the same issues, but won’t admit it which creates an inner conflict. Maybe it’s just the ‘religious reflex’ kicking in. Or it may just be human nature to try and squelch those who step outside the norm. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Working through the steps that led to deconversion was an incredibly difficult and painful process. Those of us who were indoctrinated into a fundamentalist belief system and walk away from it are statistical anomalies. Ridding our minds of the deeply ingrained, harmful virus called judgmentalism doesn’t happen overnight. In some cases, it takes years to be free from it all.
Finding your way after faith means that we allow ourselves, and others, to deal with the wide array of emotions that come and go. It means that we give others permission to talk about their grief, loss, and even times when they miss having God to talk to. Try looking at it through the stages of grief. Even though we’re not mourning a physical death, we are mourning the death of life as we know it.
During a conversation with my therapist, I remember stumbling on this realization. I told him, “I guess it feels like everybody that I loved died on the day I came out.” Giving myself permission to experience the grief tied to losing a life that I loved, people that I care for, and even the comfort of having a cosmic superhero who could (theoretically) save the day has been a huge part of finding out who I am apart from religion.
I think it’s time that we acknowledge how tough life is after faith. Giving ourselves and others the ability to openly deal with the religious baggage left behind is one of the best things we can do for each other. Compassion instead of criticism. Acceptance instead of shunning. Empathy instead of exclusion. An open mind instead of demanding conformity. These things offer us all a chance to navigate the path and find our way after faith.